January 2018

Happy New Year, Advocates! It is difficult to believe that we have just completed the first full calendar year of the Rural Counts program.

This past year, Americans looked to the skies for a once-in-a-generation total eclipse. I stood with Rural Center President Patrick Woodie in a bank parking lot in Statesville--far from the path of totality that eclipsed our far southwestern counties--and watched the sun dim, the light fade, and the shadows turn all sorts of funky shapes. 

It was an amazing moment. 

Across our country, people gathered, north to south, west to east, and stood beside friends, family, and complete strangers to watch this marvelous event. For just a couple of moments, it did not matter whether we were rural or urban, liberal or conservative, immigrant or native born. We experienced something powerful. Together.

We do not do enough together anymore. Our social media connect us in ways we could never have predicted twenty years ago, and yet they leave us without the deep personal connections we all desire. There are more people in North Carolina than ever before, but we also come from so many different places across the globe that it can be difficult to truly connect even in our own town squares, not to mention across our wide geography.

The Rural Counts program is trying to change that. We are not your typical advocacy organization. We are not trying to do big deals behind closed doors and then implore you to antagonistically call your representatives demanding they pass the Rural Center's brilliant plans. We are not claiming that in order for rural communities to thrive, urban communities must suffer.

We are saying that we are all in this together. We are encouraging us all to join together to look up and identify those bright ideals and shining goals that will move us forward. Then, we are asking you to turn your attention back to the ground and do the hard work it will take to realize that vision.

Over the course of 2017, we have been traveling around the state to clarify that vision. With every county we visit, we come closer to developing a cohesive framework for the future of economic development in rural North Carolina. We gathered over 300 people in Raleigh in May to let our policymakers know that Rural Counts, and that we are ready to work with them to implement solutions that will make a difference. We have shared stories of rural innovation to inspire communities across the state that, with a collaborative spirit and commitment to our rural places, great things are possible.

Now we turn to 2018. Our state and country have rarely been this divided, and yet we know that the solutions for rural do not reside in any one party or ideology. The solutions are embodied in the towns, the businesses, the churches, and the people of our rural communities. And working together, we know we can see a short-term future where our people are healthy, our businesses are strong, and our communities are connected in ways that will make us all competitive in a global economy.

Are we looking through solar-tinted glasses? Perhaps a bit. But there is one thing we know for certain: If we do not keep looking up, and if we refuse to stand together, we will never see the beautiful new day we know is possible for our rural communities.

Happy 2018! It is going to be a great year to show North Carolina that #RuralCounts!

 John Coggin
 Director of Advocacy

MAY 29-30

Mark your calendars now for the second annual Rural Day, coming May 29-30.

You don't want to miss this opportunity to stand with rural citizens from across the state and let your voice be heard by our state leaders.

This year's event will feature even more content about the most important policy issues facing rural North Carolina. Join us on Tuesday, May 29, to hear from top state leaders and dig deep into topics like broadband, health care, and entrepreneurship. Then meet one-on-one with your elected representatives on Tuesday afternoon or  Wednesday, May 30, and let them know how these issues matter to you.

Stay tuned: More details coming soon, along with registration info, but for now, save the date!
2017 in Review
Recapping one year of Rural Counts

Rural Day

Rural Day, held on May 8-9 at the Rural Center and at the NC General Assembly, was the first-ever statewide advocacy day focused on the needs of rural communities. We welcomed over 300 people from 70 counties to meet with legislators, hear from top state leaders, and interface directly with heads of government agencies and departments. Rural Day also served as a formal, public launch of our Rural Counts advocacy platform. Feedback from the event suggests that our participants are ready to build upon the momentum from this day and create a strong coalition of rural advocates from around the state.

Rural Road Trip

In the spring of 2017, Patrick Woodie and John Coggin set out in a rental car with an ambitious goal: to visit each of the 80 counties the Rural Center serves. The goal? To learn the local dynamics of the 10 Rural Counts strategies. We wanted to hear what's going well in each of the counties, as well as where communities are struggling. We visited over half of the rural counties in 2017 and have had conversations with people from Murphy to Nags Head and everywhere in between. We stand by our saying that if you have seen one rural county...you've seen one rural county. The diversity in our rural communities is great, and different areas are facing different struggles. But, we have also found that across the state, our communities are facing some of the same foundational issues. These visits have been the highlight of the year for the Rural Center team, and we look forward to finishing our grand tour in the first part of 2018. Be on the lookout for a final report from us later this year sharing what we've learned, and how we're going to translate that into collaborative action.

NCDOT Working Group
In February, the North Carolina Department of Transportation invited the Rural Center to serve on the state's Strategic Transportation Infrastructure workgroup. This body, created as part of the new data-driven infrastructure law passed in 2013, helps score projects brought to the DOT from regional transportation planners (Rural Planning Organizations, or RPOs, and Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs). Securing a rural-specific voice on this committee was one of the Rural Center's top priorities for 2017.
Rural Center Senior Fellow Jason Gray has spent many long hours on the committee this year to help the Rural Center bring a rural-specific voice to the table as projects are scored and decisions are made on which highways, airports, ferry routes, transit systems, and pedestrian and bike paths to build. We believe our voice has made a difference in tweaking formulas to help bring more rural equity to the allocation process.
Economic Development Incentives (H795/S660)
Two plans for improving our state's economic development incentives programs were introduced this session. The Senate version, S660, passed and moved to the House, where conversations remain underway to reconcile its provisions with those in H795. The Rural Center was at the table with other key state partners to help shape these plans, and we look forward to continuing to make improvements to this important legislation in 2018, with an anticipated reconciled bill being introduced in 2019.
Carolina Cares (H662)
The Rural Center worked extensively throughout the long session with health care organizations and service providers to communicate the links between economic development and rural health. A group of four Republican legislators introduced Carolina Cares (H662), a plan to help close the coverage gap for working North Carolinians who currently do not qualify for Medicaid but do not earn enough to afford expensive healthcare premiums. While the legislation did not advance this year, we anticipate further life to this proposal, given broad public recognition of the problems created by the insurance gap and the displayed interest in solving the issues by state legislators and both the Governor's and President's administrations. The Rural Center will continue to work with its partners on finding a statewide solution to closing the coverage gap, either through H662 or other proposals.
Rural Job Creation Fund (H904/S223)
The Rural Center worked with a group of partners, including the John Locke Foundation, the NC Justice Center, and the Center for Responsible Lending, to temporarily defeat H904. The "NC Rural Job Creation Fund" is a bill that would provide $50 million in grants to private investment firms in exchange for $100 million in financing to businesses in North Carolina over a six-year period. If a certain number of jobs are created or maintained by the financed businesses, the $50 million will be retained by the investment firm. This legislation, written and promoted by the financial management firms that would profit from its implementation, is fraught with provisions that limit its effectiveness and diminish the impact of public funds. While the bill was halted in 2017, we anticipate a further push from sponsors in the future, and we will keep working collaboratively to either substantially rework the bill or propose workable alternatives.

Rural Health Leadership Forums
The Rural Center is working with NC Child and Care4Carolina to support the goal of closing the health insurance coverage gap in North Carolina and increasing access to quality, affordable health care. As part of this collaborative effort, we are hosting local forums in rural communities across the state to learn more about local health care issues and to build support for closing the insurance gap.
We have three major goals for these forums:
a)      to present data about the many benefits of closing the coverage gap for rural communities;
b)     to listen to the concerns of local residents in order to better inform policy recommendations at the state level that will increase quality and accessibility of care; and
c)      to discuss ways that we link advocacy efforts moving forward. 
We understand that any successful advocacy effort depends on building stronger relationships with local communities and we see these forums as a step in that direction. The general framework for events is a two-and-a-half hour forum held in the morning or afternoon of a work day. The forum includes presentations from state co-conveners and at least one key local partner. There is also time for participants to provide input in small group discussions or exercises. Target audience includes local elected and civic leaders; health care and other service providers; economic development and business interests; community advocates; and more.  
The first three forums were held in Wayne, McDowell, and Harnett Counties. We anticipate several additional county-level conversations in the first part of 2018. For more information or to host a forum in your county, contact John Coggin.

Rural Center presents to new Rural Health Access Committee

This fall, the NC General Assembly's Legislative Research Commissioned authorized the creation of a new joint committee to study policy options for increasing access to health care in rural areas of the state.

Committee chairs Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Sen. David Curtis (R - Lincoln) invited the Rural Center to present at the inaugural meeting of the committee in January. 

John Coggin spoke on the economic development imperative for both healthy people and sustainable health care systems in rural places. He also highlighted opportunities for the committee to explore policy solutions for expanding access to telemedicine, closing the health insurance gap, treating physicians and other health care providers as small businesses for recruitment and retention, and building upon existing rural health assets like our AHECS, community health centers, and critical access hospitals. 

The Rural Center was honored to be a part of the first proceedings of this committee, which will be studying rural health access issues this spring and releasing recommendations at the end of April. We will continue to work with members of this committee and the entire General Assembly to find ways to make sure our rural workforce and communities have access to high quality, affordable health care.

For more details on the committee meeting, read this   comprehensive report  by NC Health News, and look on the  committee's website  for complete presentations from all speakers.

Want to learn more about the health insurance gap and how you can advocate for increasing access in North Carolina? Join our partners at Care4Carolina for advocacy training sessions. Upcoming sessions include:

Asheville - February 2 - 11:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. -  Skyland/South Buncombe Library
Charlotte - February 7 - 1:00 p.m. - 3:00 p.m. -  Charlotte League Office

To register for one of these events or to learn more about other advocacy opportunities, email  Carla Obiol, Executive Director of Care4Carolina.

Four months left in statewide tour

Last spring, Patrick Woodie and John Coggin set out on a quest: visit each of the 80 counties served by the Rural Center and meet with community leaders - elected officials, business leaders, health care workers, educators, and civic champions - to hear what was going well, and what major issues need to be tackled by a statewide network of rural advocates.

We are now over halfway through this ambitious tour. We have hosted meetings in every corner of the state, from Murphy to Sparta to Bolivia to Nags Head. What have we learned? North Carolina's rural communities are vibrant places, brimming with entrepreneurs creating opportunity, teachers helping launch the next generation, and leaders passionate about making their communities better places.

We've also found that while every county is distinct, there are many unifying struggles. Access to affordable high-speed internet is a hindrance to development in almost every county we've visited. The need for qualified teachers, capable health care professionals, and workforce housing touches most every community.

Our goal by the end of this journey is to have a deeper sense of the county-level nuances of the issues facing rural North Carolina, as well as to have identified areas in which the Rural Center can be most effective at gathering rural citizens to speak up for statewide solutions.

We are doing our best to finish this tour by April. Scheduled meetings are below, and more dates coming soon!

Watauga County - Tuesday, January 23, 9:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.
Avery County - Tuesday, January 23, 2:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Mitchell County - Wednesday, January 24, 9:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.
Yancey County - Wednesday, January 24, 3:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Madison County - Thursday, January 25, 9:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.
Transylvania County - Thursday, January 25, 3:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Burke County - Friday, January 26, 10:00 a.m. - Noon

If we have not yet visited your county, please let us know! Contact  John Coggin
to schedule a community forum in your town.


As 2017 came to a close, Congress delivered on a major campaign promise to pass a tax cut bill, and approved a waiver to the Pay-As-You-Go budget rule that would have triggered automatic cuts to Medicare and dozens of other federal programs to pay for the tax cuts. Fortunately, Congress funded the federal government through January 19, 2018, to avoid a government shutdown, and provided additional funding of $2.1 billion to the Veterans Choice Act program to allow eligible veterans more flexibility to seek medical services outside the Veterans Affairs Department. Unfortunately, Congress did not finalize a disaster supplemental spending bill, which would have provided North Carolina an additional $63 million in community development funds for Hurricane Matthew long-term recovery. The bill passed the House of Representatives, but is pending in the Senate.
The Trump Administration has worked throughout the year to reverse Obama policy direction by slashing regulations; offering tougher enforcement of immigration laws; and reshaping environmental, energy, education, and health care policies by executive action. The tax cut bill is the Administration's major legislative accomplishment for the year.
As Congress returned to Washington in January 2018, major issues were waiting. Congress must agree to spending limits for FY 2018 and FY 2019, so the FY 2018 omnibus appropriations bill can be completed. A FY 2018 Continuing Resolution expires  January 19 . Congress must consider the disaster supplemental spending package, along with debates about defense and non-defense spending levels, the fate of the Dreamers - undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, and raising the federal debt ceiling. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) terminates in March. Authorization for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) also expires in March.
Health care advocates urge Congress to stabilize the health insurance markets by restoring cost-sharing reduction payments and funding for reinsurance programs. Almost nine million signed up for health insurance provided through the federal exchange although the sign-up period was shortened and advertising limited. The 11 states that run their own exchanges reported increased enrollments. There are three taxes that take effect January 1, 2018, if Congress does not act to delay or repeal them - medical devices, health insurance, and the "Cadillac tax" on high-cost health plans. Congress also must consider long-term reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which now has enough funding to last until March. Community Health Centers, the National Health Service Corps, the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education Program, the Special Diabetes Program, and the Special Diabetes Program for Indians also are funded through March. The cost of these extensions is paid by reducing the funds for the Prevention and Public Health Fund.
Repeal of Net Neutrality: action by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to change how access to the internet is priced could greatly impact business development and restrict rural patients' access to telehealth services, harming the ability to speak to a physician or electronically send a hospital health information from personal devices. These are just a few examples of the negative impact of repeal of the net neutrality rules. The new rules will take effect 60 days after they are published in the Federal Register. State attorneys general and advocacy groups have announced intentions to sue the FCC, advocating for a free and open internet. Expect congressional action as well.         
Tax Reform
On December 20, Congress approved the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (H.R. 1, H. Rept. 115-466), adding $1.46 trillion to the federal $20 trillion deficit, over 10 years, because the bill did not include funding adjustments to pay for the measure. The Tax Policy Center estimates the bill will add $1.3 trillion to the deficits over 10 years, once increased growth is factored in. Congress did approve a waiver of the Pay-As-You-Go budget rule to stop across-the-board cuts for programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, among others, which would have been triggered by adding to the deficit. The President signed both measures on December 22.
According to the tax bill, most businesses and individual filers would see a reduction in their tax rate under the measure. Changes for individuals would be effective from 2018 through 2025, while corporate changes were made permanent. The final agreement did not eliminate the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax (ATM) for individuals, although both would apply to fewer filers through 2025.
State and local tax deductions: $10,000 individual deduction cap of property tax plus income or sales taxes paid; provision expires 2026.
Community development: Municipal bonds, low-income housing tax credits, private activity bonds, new market tax credits, renewable energy investment tax credits, production tax credits, and historic tax credits were preserved. The bill creates a new Investing in Opportunity Zone where investors are able to defer capital gains as long as they invest in existing or new businesses in low-income communities; program is similar to the new market tax credit program and uses the same eligibility criteria for determining low-income opportunity zones. The tax bill repeals tax credit bonds, including new clean renewable energy bonds, qualified energy conservation bonds, qualified zone academy bonds, and qualified school construction bonds. The authority to issue recovery zone economic development bonds and Build America Bonds expired on January 1, 2011.   
Charitable giving: Maintains charitable deduction but increases standard deduction ($12,000 for individuals; $24,000 for joint filers) so fewer taxpayers will itemize. Research indicates that donors will not contribute as much if deductions are eliminated. The measure does increase the cap on deductions, from 50 percent to as much as 60 percent of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) to incentivize high-income donors to give more to charity. The bill repeals the statutory charitable mileage rate of 14 cents per mile and provides instead that the standard mileage rate used for determining the charitable contribution deduction shall be a rate which takes into account the variable costs of operating an automobile. The IRS will set the new rate to be used when providing volunteer services.     
Health Care: Repealed the individual health insurance mandate penalties effective 2019; allows tax deductions for medical expenses, returning to the 7.5 percent threshold of AGI, for 2017 and 2018. The individual health insurance mandate is a central tenet of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Without the requirement, healthy people tend to avoid buying insurance until they need it, leaving insurance plans with a sicker population to cover and driving up premiums and costs for everyone else.  
Education: The bill does not tax the tuition waivers that graduate students receive from education institutions as income and does not eliminate deductions for tuition and student loan interest. Campus employees scored a win in the final bill, which did not tax the tuition benefits they receive. People whose employers cover a portion of their college costs no longer have to worry about those funds becoming taxable income. The bill does not allow tax-advantaged 529 college accounts to be used for home-schooling; but 529 funds can be used for public, private, or religious K-12 school tuition. The bill does maintain the $250 school-supply deduction for teachers. The bill does place a new 1.4 percent excise tax on endowment investment income of private colleges and universities, but the scope was narrowed as a result of higher education leaders advocating for change to an original House proposal.
Child and Dependents Tax Credits: From 2018 through 2015, the measure increases the value of the child tax credit to $2,000 per child under 17 years old. As much as $1,400 of the credit would be refundable, allowing recipients to benefit even if they don't owe taxes. The refundable portion of the credit will be indexed for inflation and rounded down to the nearest hundred in future years. A $500 nonrefundable credit for dependents other than children is provided through 2025.
Disaster Relief: Individuals who lived where a presidentially declared major disaster occurred in 2016 (NC - Hurricane Matthew) could temporarily withdraw as much as $100,000 from their retirement accounts for disaster recovery without paying the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. The withdrawal would be included in taxable income over three years, although it could be treated as a tax-free rollover if the individual recontributed the funds to their retirement account within that time. Individuals can deduct losses exceeding $500 from presidentially declared disasters in 2016 and 2017, in addition to any standard deduction they claimed.     

Director of Advocacy
NC Rural Center